More than 800 Iranian filmmakers have signed a declaration against sexual harassment, coercion and violence in their industry. The public's response to their willingness to name and shame has been overwhelming.

Sexual violence
#MeToo revelations rock Iranian film industry

More than 800 Iranian filmmakers have signed a declaration against sexual harassment, coercion and violence in their industry. The public's response to their willingness to name and shame has been overwhelming. By Nasrin Bassiri

In the first week of April, Iranian media published news about a statement signed by about 300 Iranian actresses, film producers, directors, screenwriters and other women working in the film industry. In the "Declaration of Women in the Film Industry", they speak of verbal sexual harassment, unwanted physical contact, forced sexual acts and coercion with the use of physical force and, finally, of being told to keep quiet about the incidents so as not to lose their jobs. Since its initial publication, the declaration has been signed by a further 500 filmmakers.

The declaration describes sexist behaviour and violence against women as systematic in various areas of the film industry. The signatories complain that there are no predefined ways or mechanisms to prevent powerful men in the film industry sexually assaulting women. Conversely, sexual harassment and assault appear to be the common norm by tacit agreement, with perpetrators unlikely, if ever, to be called to account.

Unsurprisingly, the central demands of female Iranian filmmakers are: "Work in a safe and peaceful environment, free from oppression and depravity". The signatories are calling on an independent commission to be set up to investigate such incidents. They insist that, if this intolerable situation is to change, conditions must be created for women to protect themselves against sexual harassment, violence and assault. Five of the signatories have already been selected to form such a commission.

Prominent signatories

They include famous actresses such as Taraneh Alidoosti. The 38-year-old starred in Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning film "The Salesman". Her own first film "I am Taraneh, 15 years old" won Best Film at the Locarno, Thessaloniki and Brisbane International Film Festivals. Alidoosti describes herself as a feminist. She has twice stood trial on charges of "spreading lies and propaganda against the Islamic order". In the end, the charges were dropped, but she was still sentenced to five months' suspended imprisonment for "insulting the forces of law and order while on duty". On Twitter, she repeatedly comes to the defence of women who oppose compulsory veiling. Alidoosti also translates literary works, such as "The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss and "My Mother's Dream" by Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro.

Famous Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti (photo: Iran Journal)
Committed feminist: famous actress Taraneh Alidoosti is one of the signatories to the "Declaration of Women in the Film Industry". The 38-year-old starred in Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning film "The Salesman". Her own first film "I am Taraneh, 15 years old" won Best Film at the Locarno, Thessaloniki and Brisbane International Film Festivals. Alidoosti describes herself as a feminist. She has twice stood trial on charges of "spreading lies and propaganda against the Islamic order". In the end, the charges were dropped, but she was still sentenced to five months' suspended imprisonment for "insulting the forces of law and order while on duty". On Twitter, she repeatedly comes to the defence of women who oppose compulsory veiling

Zu den weiteren Unterzeichnerinnen gehört auch Niki Karimi. Die 50-Jährige ist ein Superstar im

Another signatory is Niki Karimi. The 50-year-old is a superstar in the Islamic Republic, an iconic director and producer of Iranian cinema. She also works as a literary translator: two volumes of poetry by women are among her publications. Alidoosti and Karimi were both on Buzznet's "30 Most Beautiful Women in the World" list in 2017 and 2018.

A few days before the declaration was released, assistant director Somaye Mirshamsi spoke out about an incident during a shoot. She said that a well-known actor had sexually harassed and propositioned her. When he was unsuccessful, he urinated in the middle of the room in front of her. The next morning, she reported the incident to the director,  also the producer of the film, and asked him to rectify the matter. All he said was, "Don't make a fuss!" Somaye Mirshamsi, however, was prepared to go public about the incident. Both the actors' union and the assistant directors' union came to her defence. She is now a co-signatory of the "Declaration of Women in the Film Industry" and one of its elected spokespersons.

Renowned actor Babak Karimi encouraged Mirshamsi saying, "What dishonours and degrades cinema is our silence and inaction. When a producer or director is aware of improper behaviour, but takes no notice of it, preferring to carry on as if nothing has happened, instead of standing up for his team, that's disrespectful. That makes him an accomplice or co-harasser."

Death of Zohreh Fakoor-Saboor

The Iranian Young Reporters Club news portal recently reported the death of an actress. Zohreh Fakoor-Saboor, 43, was a competent and sought-after actress who starred in TV series and movies. She was a modest woman, loved by her colleagues and viewers, who excelled in character roles. Her lifeless body was found in the bedroom of her flat on 1 March 2022. Next to her were empty boxes of tranquilliser pills. Police called her death suspicious, although no signs of an altercation or violence were found on her body. The body was autopsied.

 

The actress was considered single and lived in a flat in Tehran's Gholhak district. The person who found her body was her "husband", said Tehran judge Mohammad Reza Sahebjomei, who is leading the investigation with his team. The "husband" told the judge that his wife had been living alone in the flat: "I saw her two days ago, she seemed the same as usual. Yesterday we spoke on the phone and talked about everyday things." He describes the relationship as good. The "husband" was worried because Zohreh's mother had told him on the phone that she was not answering the phone. Zohreh had called her mother in the afternoon; she had seemed sad and was crying,  the "husband" quoted the mother as saying.

The previous evening, Zohreh Fakoor-Saboor had posted a TV interview of herself on Instagram. In it, she told the presenter that she regretted becoming an actress. If she had had children, she would have forbidden them to become actors. Had she been as smart as she is now, she would have got married and raised a family. No one investigating Fakoor-Saboor's mysterious death could find out – or would reveal – whether she was actually married, and who her husband was. The only concrete clue came from Justice Sahebjomei, whom the Young Reporters' Club quoted as saying that enquiries had revealed that the person who found her body was a film and television producer. The deceased was his second wife. This information went uncommented by the relatives.

A presenter at Fakoor-Saboor's funeral, which was attended by hundreds of celebrities, said: "Only God is all-knowing. All we know is that she had a lot to say that went unsaid. Words can kill a person." He asked the people present not to judge others. The 53-year-old film and television producer Mehran Maham, a long-time colleague with whom she had worked for nearly a quarter of a century on more than 20 TV series and film projects, was seen at her graveside shedding loud and bitter tears.

The producer was traded directly and indirectly as Zohreh's husband by a handful of domestic and international media outlets. A lot of unanswered questions remain. If Zohreh was indeed someone's first, or even or second wife, it makes no sense that he did not have a key to the flat and that the caretaker had to turn up to let him in.

Rule to date: the woman is to blame

Until now, the rule in Iran has been: if a woman is sexually harassed or assaulted, she is to blame. Probably her hijab was too loose, her headscarf too thin, her coat too short or she was joking and laughing in the street.

Now Iran's most popular actresses and directors are speaking out, those who keep millions of people company night after night while they eat or drink tea. Since food prices have risen, since COVID-19 kicked off, not even the Iranian middle class can afford to invite friends and relatives over. For many, there is not even enough money to buy fruit and snacks for guests.

Increasingly, it is the actors who "visit" as virtual guests, in lavishly produced series with superstars and special effects, or in feature films that may have previously been shown at the Berlinale, Cannes, Locarno or Venice; with female artists who have received international awards and show the world a positive side of Iran. Their photos on the red carpets can be seen in European glossy magazines; they are the peace ambassadors of the people, unlike the grim men with beards who represent power and the military.

Still from the film "Manuscripts don't burn" by Mohammad Rasoulof (photo: Elle Driver)
Ambassadors of freedom. men and women, directors and screenwriters, use the content of their films to campaign for freedom, change, and the abolition of Iran's strict regime of social regulation. Like Mohammad Rasoulof – here a still from his film "Manuscripts don't burn" – whose films have earned awards in Cannes and Berlin. Filmmakers win over people's hearts in Iran like football stars do in some European countries. The actors are more important to the audience than directors, whose names only appear for a few seconds in the opening or closing credits of their films

Many of them – with their attire, red lipstick and hair peeking out from under a hat or narrow scarf – subtly rebel against the rules, taking a stand for freedoms. Men and women, directors and screenwriters, use the content of their films to campaign for freedom, change, and the abolition of Iran's strict regime of social regulation. Both Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi, whose films have earned awards in Cannes and Berlin, were unable to attend the awards ceremonies in person, either because of prison sentences or bans on leaving the country. In short, filmmakers win over people's hearts in Iran like football stars do in some European countries. The actors are more important to the audience than directors, whose names only appear for a few seconds in the opening or closing credits of their films. This is especially true if they are beautiful and smart.

Spineless proposal by the "House of Cinema"

The Iranian "House of Cinema" (HoC) has since responded to the Open Letter from women filmmakers. The HoC was founded in 1989 by the Director of the Film Section of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the "Farabi Film Foundation". "Farabi" is supposed to be a national institution for filmmaking in Iran and is described as an NGO. However, it was established by government decree and operates under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

The HoC's statement reads, among other things: "We condemn violence that may be perpetrated, especially of a sexual nature, in all its manifestations," and further: "The HoC considers it its elementary duty under its statutes and powers to take responsibility for this, and condemns any act that violates the cultural etiquette and professional ethics of people working in cinema." He said the HoC would "of course" take all necessary measures.

To this end, he said, a committee would be set up consisting of the chairman of the board and the chairman of the Supreme Arbitration Council of the HoC, plus three trusted figures in Iranian cinema to be elected by the general assembly of the HoC, a representative of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and a lawyer. The commission would deal with complaints, taking into account ethical principles such as confidentiality, providing those affected with the necessary legal advice to take their grievances to court if necessary.

'Old guard' methods no solution

Signatories to the declaration are demanding that the competences of the commission members in dealing with sexual harassment must be "demonstrable, effective and measurable". The members must also receive appropriate training. In addition, the committee should be democratically elected, women must hold the absolute majority and the committee itself must be "accessible to all women in the film industry".

 

 

The HoC's proposals, however, are at odds with every one of these points. The contributors occupy management positions and have so far tried to stifle the issues brought by the women behind closed doors. The signatories complain that the body is employing the same old inefficient methods, which was one of the things they were hoping to change with their declaration in the first place.

Commenting on the solutions proposed by the HoC, film director Ghazaleh Soltani told state news agency IRNA: "Sometimes strange ideas stew in the minds of those in charge of the HoC." He said the problem could not be resolved using "old guard" solutions. It must be tackled at the root and cannot simply be "wished away".

According to the Imena news agency, Ensieh Khazali, the Iranian president's deputy in charge of women's issues, called for "protecting the dignity of women artists". The "precious presence of women" in the film industry should not be harmed, she said. "For four decades, our women have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with men, striving to advance the country's academia, economy, politics and culture. We are committed to confronting any taint and ill-treatment, be it administrative, financial or moral, and we will not make any concession here."

Khazali invited the signatories to a meeting: "As the Deputy President for Women and Family Affairs, I think it is necessary to respond to the demands of women artists in the field of Iranian cinema and to maintain an open ear when working to protect the dignity of women in this field."

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance responded to the filmmakers' statement by establishing a Council of Professional Ethics and called for the HoC to extend its protection.

An Iranian MP, Morteza Mahmoudvand, addressed the parliament as follows: "An artist states publicly in an interview that she was sexually harassed and coerced backstage. When she protested, the perpetrator, a well-known person in the film industry, beat her. I ask: who is this impudent rascal who dares behave in such a way, in an Islamic country that has produced martyrs?" If the relevant authorities were not able to deal with such types, "the fighters and defenders of the honour of the Iranian nation" (synonymous with Hezbollah's thugs – Ed.) were ready and could step in, Mahmoudvand added.

Criticism levied at the signatories

Director and screenwriter Chista Yasrabi was the victim of sexual violence 15 years ago. At the time, she was asked by a well-known colleague with whom she was working on a screenplay to continue working at his home; other people would also be there. But that was not the case.

While she was working on the script, the man grabbed her from behind and tried to take her by force. She resisted and was beaten. "I grabbed an object on the table and flung it against the window creating a loud crash. The caretaker came and I wanted to leave, but my colleague refused to give me my bag. The house was on the outskirts, it was dark and my money was in my bag. I ran away without my bag. A motorcyclist took pity on me and brought me home."

Yasrabi filed a case against her harasser and lost because she did not have a medical certificate to prove the incident. Following the recent declaration, she has since spoken publicly about the case without naming the perpetrator.

On Instagram, Yasrabi laid into the declaration's signatories for not supporting her at the time: "You are a pack of liars and opportunists! How dare you take this position today? Back then you told me: don't say anything! The House of Cinema said: if you don't keep quiet, we will silence you! I spent 15 years in fear, panic and stress, and you made temporary marriages, became love partners for an hour or a day! You have received awards, you have been praised as chaste, dignified, the veiled great ladies of Iranian cinema. You have sold your souls and bodies and have branded me as mad."

Other women also have yet to sign the filmmakers' declaration because they fear further restrictions. Film producer and director Manijeh Hekmat, for example, sees it as a "trap". It would give the rulers the opportunity to have the morality police check film productions as if they were on the street, to see if headscarves are being worn properly, if a few strands of hair are visible, if the crew is dressed properly.

Hekmat made the feature film "Jaddeh Ghadim" about a rape five years ago. She asserts that all the experts involved confirm that under the current law, with the way the Iranian judiciary works, women will suffer maximum harm if they take a rapist to court. Lawyers have also issued such advice officially.

She obviously failed to convince her daughter Pegah Ahangarani, an actor and documentary filmmaker, of these arguments. The latter was one of the first signatories to put her name to the declaration.

Nasrin Bassiri

© Iran Journal/Qantara.de 2022

The demands of the women filmmakers in Iran have so far been supported by the International Women's Film Festival Dortmund/Cologne and the Association of German Film Critics.

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